Five Things All Pet Owners Should Know About MRSA

Patty Khuly

I’ll never forget the time a tearful client explained that she’d been required to remove all pets from her household after she’d been hospitalized for a MRSA infection. Turns out her physician had claimed she’d almost certainly gotten this bacterial “superbug” infection from her dog. And though she’d initially refused to comply, her husband had refused to live in the same house until the pets were relocated. Hence, the tears.

In case you’ve forgotten about MRSA now that the furor over so-called “superbugs” is currently in remission, MRSA is the acronym we use for “methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus,” a kind of bacteria that’s learned more than a few tricks when it comes to avoiding the bacterial poisons we call antibiotics.

As amazing antibiotic evaders, MRSA “bugs” are hard to kill, which turns otherwise easy-to-treat infections into frighteningly life-threatening experiences worthy of long, expensive hospital stays and aggressive interventions.

The challenges of treatment is bad enough. It’s made worse, however, by the fact that we still know precious little about how MRSA is transmitted. Which makes prevention a tricky subject.

In fact, because of the limited data available on MRSA transmission, it's been my experience that many physicians treating MRSA infection patients have taken to making blanket recommendations like the “no pets” rule my client suffered through. Apparently, plenty of veterinarians have been hearing the same thing. According to a study in a 2009 issue of JAVMA (Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association),

“...the authors have dealt with many situations in which it has been recommended that pets be removed from the household or euthanized, even without verification of concurrent colonization, let alone the identification of pets as the source of infection.”

Consequently, the veterinary community has taken on the task: Figure out who’s giving MRSA to whom and suss out the real risk of transmission. Because while it’s the physician’s role to be cautious of pets, it’s veterinary medicine’s job to preserve the human-animal bond –– not to mention our patients’ health. All of which necessarily requires that we educate the public on this subject.

To that end, I’ve prepared a simple list of MRSA facts every pet owner should know:

#1 Take steps to prevent MRSA

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are putting your tax dollars to good use when it comes to MRSA. Here’s their how-to guide when it comes to personal prevention.

#2 Know if you’re especially at risk

Anyone can get a MRSA infection. Those most likely to get an MRSA infection, however, are people who are hospitalized or in a nursing home, especially if they’re immunosuppressed and have been recently treated with antibiotics.

#3 What’s “community-associated” MRSA?

People who are healthy and who don’t fall into these categories are still at risk of acquiring what we call, “community-associated” MRSA. Most of these are infections of the skin that the CDC has associated with the following factors: close skin-to-skin contact, openings in the skin such as cuts or abrasions, contaminated items and surfaces, crowded living conditions, and poor hygiene. This helps explain why athletic facilities and schools are common locations for transmission.

#4 MRSA’s on the decline

For all the hype that often surrounds MRSA, you’d think it was on the upswing. But results from a 2010 CDC study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) showed that life-threatening MRSA infections acquired in healthcare settings as well as the “community-associated” form are significantly on the decline.

#5 Who’s the household’s patient zero?

According to the JAVMA study I referenced above, humans appear more likely to be the initiators of transmission. Which only makes sense given our heavy interaction with a variety of humans, as well as with places and situations that might easily prove infectious. Our pets? Not so much.

Sure, more study is needed. But it appears that most of it will be geared towards determining the direction of transmission and to figuring out what it is we need to do to protect our pets from the wrath of our own cooties … and not the other way around.

So what happened to my client, you ask?

In the end, the pets were all tested for MRSA, everyone came up clean, and they were eventually allowed to come home. Perhaps not surprisingly, however, divorce ensued. So let that be a lesson to everyone: Our pets are almost always on the side of the angels. Pick the one that pits you against them at your own peril.

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